Thursday, September 29, 2011

Ronald Reagan Is Still Dead

"Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead."

Chevy Chase
Saturday Night Live (c. 1976)

It's fashionable these days — and justifiably so — for people to complain that Washington is broken.

But that really isn't new. I mean, folks have been complaining about the damn guv'ment for as long as I can remember.

That's a truism of politics.

And the party that is out of power always wants to take power from the other party. Always.

That's another truism of politics.

So, in spite of the racial angle that is introduced into the 2012 presidential campaign because of Barack Obama's pigmentation, I don't see anything special about the desire of the Republican Party to defeat him.

Others may see racists lurking in the shadows, but I see politics as usual. Didn't the Republicans openly seek to defeat Bill Clinton in 1996? And didn't they desire — and achieve — victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980?

For that matter, didn't Democrats wring their hands at the thought of re–electing George W. Bush in 2004? Didn't they unite behind Clinton in 1992 in large part because they desperately wanted the elder Bush and Dan Quayle to leave and 12 years of Republican rule to end?

Politics is a competitive business, folks. The party that is out of power always wants to be the party that is in power. And the worse things are, the louder the opposition seems to be. It's always been that way.

The only thing that has really changed is the absence of civility. Politics was always rough and tumble when I was growing up, but neither side accused the other of being socialist or fascist.

All right, sometimes the discourse got out of line, like whenever someone accused someone else of being a communist. The red scares of the 1950s were hardly this country's finest hours.

Mostly, though, political campaigns were civil, and the discussions were serious. The politicians didn't focus on irrelevant issues — like flag burning or gay marriage or prayer in school — and try to smear each other or accuse each other of being unpatriotic or racist. Go back and look at the advertising and the speeches from the campaigns that were conducted just 25 years ago if you don't believe me.

Smearing opponents and playing on people's fears happened to work pretty well, politicians discovered, and now no one seems to know how to campaign for office without resorting to negative tactics.

I've read and heard from several Democrats — named and unnamed — who say Obama will have no choice but to "do what they do" and resort to negative campaigning to win re–election. That's probably true, but, to me, that seems a rather odd about–face for a president who won election running on a "hope and change" platform.

There's not much hope when there is no change.

But what really works is what voters can see and hear and feel. Maybe the reason so many people make their voting decisions based on what they can see in their lives — and not on what the politicians tell them they should see and hear and feel — is because they trust their own eyes a lot more than they trust any politician.

The people are smarter than the politicians give them credit for being. They're smart enough, anyway, to see through the smokescreens and self–serving rhetoric.

It was tough for the Republicans to get much traction against Clinton in 1996 because things were clearly improving. It was easier for the Democrats to make their case against the Republicans in 1992 than it had been four years earlier because the economy had deteriorated.

Likewise it was easier for Ronald Reagan and the Republicans to make their case in 1980 than it was for Bob Dole in 1996 because of the differences in the economies of those years.

I've said many times that I believe next year's election will be decided by the prevailing conditions and that the who part simply won't matter very much.

And I'll admit that it is possible that things will turn around before Election Day 2012 — but not too probable. Obama has apparently given up on his own call for civility in political discourse, and the Republicans have shown little, if any, interest in working with him. So nothing seems likely to get done until after the next election with this do–nothing government.

It feels like I'm watching a rerun of an episode that I have seen before — and didn't like the first time. I understand that many Democrats are anxious — as they should be. In terms of sheer numbers, there are more Americans who are unemployed or underemployed today than at any other time in U.S. history. Those who haven't run out of patience are in the process of doing so.

If Obama is defeated in 2012 — and I believe he will be — there will be, without a doubt, a segment of the population that will vote against him because of his race — just as there is a segment of the population that will vote for him for the same reason. But it is wrong for anyone to suggest that racism will be the sole reason for his defeat.

Many white Americans voted for Obama in 2008. He could not have been elected if they had not — but poll after poll after poll has shown that he has fallen well short of their expectations and he has been losing them.

Politicians don't have the luxury of choosing what the voters will use to evaluate them or their performances in office, but they do have the option of telling the voters what they think the voters should consider. (Whether the voters actually do consider what the politicians think they should is an entirely different matter — and a subject for another post.)

And one thing that seems to be constant in the GOP, from the candidates to the rank–and–file, is a desire for a Ronald Reagan for this era. I hear the candidates speaking of it, and it is clear they would like nothing better than to be mentioned in the same breath with Reagan, to be compared favorably to the "Great Communicator."

And I hear the rank–and–file speak longingly of Reagan — as if there had never been a time when he was dismissed by many, Republicans as well as Democrats, as reckless, simplistic, a cowboy actor out of his element whose shoot–first–and–ask–questions–later style would plunge the country into a nuclear war.

I guess there has always been a nostalgic element at work during presidential elections, but it seems to be stronger now than in any other election that I can remember. You can see it in the intense yearning on the Republican side for a figure like Reagan to emerge.

It reminds me of the old Weekend Update segments on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s, when Chevy Chase would announce that "Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead." There have been times in recent months when I have wanted to remind Republicans that Reagan has been dead for seven years — but I suspect that would not change the longing that exists for a strong leader.

Now, I rarely agreed with Reagan on policy, and I recoiled then (as I do now) at the blatant mixing of religion and politics, but Reagan really was a unique leader. I did not give him enough credit for that when he was president. Ideology was important, as it always is, but there was a quality in Reagan that exists in all great leaders. They are able to connect on some level with most Americans in spite of political differences.

I think this accounts for the somewhat "flavor of the month" approach the Republicans have been taking to the selection of their presidential nominee. They've been searching for the next Reagan.

Initially, of course, it was Mitt Romney who was seen as the front runner among the announced candidates, largely because voters knew who he was. Then attention shifted for awhile to Sarah Palin, even though she hadn't said she would run (and still hasn't). Next in the spotlight was Michele Bachmann, followed by Rick Perry, who — a la Ross Perot — catapulted into the lead without having really said anything.

But Perry's rising star seems to be crashing to earth now that he has said something — and ran into trouble as a result — so the search has gone on.

Then a straw poll in Florida prompted many to anoint Herman Cain as the front runner. (Where, I wonder, would the race–card players be if Cain won the GOP nomination?)

Tim Pawlenty got out of the race when his showing in the Iowa straw poll was short of his own expectations. He had too much ground to make up, critics said. I found that astonishing, given that no one has secured so much as a single delegate to the Republicans' 2012 convention.

Recently, there have been efforts to persuade Chris Christie of New Jersey to enter the race although the deadlines for getting a candidate's name on primary ballots are rapidly approaching. (The Washington Post says he is reconsidering his decision not to run, but that doesn't change the filing deadlines.)

Consequently, sensing that the field that exists today is the field that will compete in the primaries, that there will be no more new entries, Republicans seem to be returning to Romney as the one who is most likely to attract disgruntled independents and Democrats to their cause.

Frankly, I am encouraged by the fact that Republicans are showing at least a little maturity and deliberation in their decision. There have been many opportunities for them to jump on any old bandwagon, regardless of any reservations they may have about the candidate, in their eagerness to defeat Obama, and I am sure there are Republicans who have been tempted to do precisely that — to unite behind a candidate early.

Fortunately, most Republicans seem to have been resisting that temptation.

I'm glad Republicans are carefully examining each candidate, listening to what each has to say and taking their time — because I really do believe that the economy will decide the election, and nine out of 10 Americans currently say it is poor.

(The next president absolutely must make jobs his #1 priority — if not his only priority.)

That makes me think that 2012 will be a strongly anti–incumbent year. That doesn't mean that every incumbent will be defeated — unfortunately, many Americans are pleased with their own representatives but would happily vote against the ones from other districts and states if they could — but I think many incumbents will be defeated, and the presidency is the only race in which everyone, from the bluest of the blue states to the reddest of the red, can vote.

If that anti–incumbent mood is as great as I think it will be, the Republican presidential nominee, whoever that is, stands to benefit from it because the only way that people can express their displeasure is at the ballot box, and the Republican nominee will be the only real alternative — unless a viable third party emerges.

Since the 2012 Republican nominee will probably be the next president — and since I am an independent — I can only hope that they will be reasonable in reaching their decision, that they will choose someone who can reach across the aisle, as Reagan often did.

He won't be Reagan, though. Ronald Reagan is still dead.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Just Thinkin' Out Loud

There really isn't anything terribly remarkable about this evening.

It's just an ordinary Wednesday. As Jimmy Stewart observed in "Rear Window," the calendar is full of 'em.

But that calendar runs out on everyone eventually. That's something of which I have been reminded far too often in recent years, and it's something we all know we'll have to face ... someday. We alone among the creatures who walk or swim or fly on this planet possess the intelligence to know that our days are numbered.

That knowledge can be as much of a curse for some people as it is a blessing for others. I have known people who feared — and I do mean feared — death, and I have known people who welcomed it — the sick and the elderly.

When you think about it, there really isn't much people can leave behind except their appreciation for the things they hold dear. They can only hope that someone will pick them up like a fallen baton.

Most people have children with whom they can share their passions for things or activities. In my family, my brother was more like my father. They liked to build things with their hands. I leaned more to the things my mother liked — books, music, that sort of thing. Both of my parents were creative. They were just creative in different ways.

Mom encouraged my passion for writing, which had a lot to do with my choice of journalism as my profession. And i wouldn't trade the years I worked as a reporter and an editor for anything in the world, but I often think that, without realizing it, I made a trade that will always make my life experiences different from those of most of my friends.

Relationships never seemed to thrive for me when I was in my 20s, and I was working five nights a week (including weekends and holidays) for a morning paper or getting up at 4 in the morning to get to work at an afternoon paper by 5:30. There was a time in my life when I really wanted to get married and have a family — but I never had the experience of being a parent, as so many of my contemporaries did.

But I did kind of experience it by proxy.

My best friend from my high school days and his wife at the time made me the godfather of their daughter, Nicole. It is, I believe, the greatest gift anyone has ever given me — or will ever give me.

I didn't see much of Nikki when she was a little girl, and that is something I deeply regret, but we have communicated a lot in the last few years, and I have tried to pass on to her some of the things I have learned, some of the things that I value.

She and I often exchange thoughts via Facebook, where she frequently posts quotes from writers and other creative types. She reminds me of Mom when she does that, and it makes me realize, in a way that little else could, that Mom died far too soon.

Mom died before the internet really blossomed commercially, but I have no doubt that she would have embraced things like Facebook, sharing quotes that she found meaningful and/or intriguing with her friends.

She was the one who introduced me to many of the writers whose works I cherish today — Mark Twain, Allen Drury, Joseph Heller. One memorable summer when I was in college, we discovered the writings of Stephen King together and exchanged his books all summer long.

I've tried to share some of my passions with Nikki — like this evening, for example. Nikki quoted Jim Morrison on Facebook, and I mentioned that she should listen to some of his music if she hasn't done so. She indicated — as one can do on Facebook — that she liked my comment.

I don't know if she has listened to the Doors' music or not. She must have at least some exposure to it if she is quoting Morrison.

I mentioned the other day that I felt her tastes were very literary, and she indicated that she liked that, too. I teach writing at the local community college, and I found myself wishing, as I often do, that Nikki lived close enough to enroll in one of my classes. It would be a lot of fun for both of us.

I know that won't happen, though, but I will continue to encourage these things in my goddaughter that I saw in my mother.

And perhaps those things that meant something to Mom and also mean something to me will be passed along to her. Maybe she will pass them on to her son, and he, in turn, will pass them on to his children.

In that way, I can experience what most of my friends have experienced, and, in a way, I can live on after I'm gone.

Well, it's worth trying, don't you think?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Not-So-Simple Country Lawyer

"I used to think that the Civil War was our country's greatest tragedy, but I do remember that there were some redeeming features in the Civil War in that there was some spirit of sacrifice and heroism displayed on both sides. I see no redeeming features in Watergate."

Sam Ervin

This would have been the 115th birthday of a man who was widely regarded as a national hero when I was a boy but who seems to be largely forgotten today — Sam Ervin.

He called himself a "simple country lawyer" from North Carolina, the state he represented in the U.S. Senate for 20 years, but that didn't do justice to the man or his life's achievements.

He graduated from Harvard Law School, and he liked to joke that he completed the work "backwards," taking the third–year courses first, the second–year courses second and the first–year courses last. I'm not sure how he managed to do that, but apparently he did. He even passed the bar before he finished his work on his law degree.

Many great legal minds have spent all or part of their careers in Washington, D.C., but Ervin's was one of the finest — and perhaps its most noble characteristic was its willingness to embrace the kinds of shifts and changes that are inevitable in a diverse, pluralist system.

For many years, "Senator Sam," as he was affectionately known when he chaired the Senate's Watergate investigation committee, was a defender of segregation and the Jim Crow laws that still defined much of the South in the first half of the 20th century — but he changed his position and became a champion of civil liberties.

I've always felt that was a hallmark of an intelligent, mature person — the ability to keep an open mind, to concede when one has been wrong and to change one's position when facts and/or times change. Frankly, I have known few such people in my life.

I'm sure it would have been enlightening to hear Ervin's thoughts on 21st century America and the world.

But perhaps not.

Senator Sam was a man of his times, a product of his times. He was born in the late 19th century — before cars and airplanes, before radio and long before television. He suited the people he represented — but their descendants may or may not have been comfortable with him.

They might have been, though.

Admittedly, Senator Sam wasn't flashy, which might have been a severe strike against him in an internet–and–iPhone–dominated era, and it was indisputably true that he was a country lawyer — albeit one with a degree from Harvard — but he was far from simple.

He possessed a kind of wisdom that was once called common sense.

It never goes out of style — but sometimes (like now) it is in short supply.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Presidential Standards

I believe, as I have believed for a long time, that the 2012 presidential election will be shaped — and, ultimately, decided — by the unemployment rate and the general state of the economy.

But there is more to it than that, and, as tempting as it will be for many of his supporters to blame racism when he faces the almost insurmountable challenge of trying to be re–elected in the midst of an economy that is, arguably, worse than it was when he took office, blaming racism shows a stunningly naive world view — and an ignorance of history that is shocking. At the very least, it dismisses the role white voters played in his election in 2008. It was nice to have all those young voters and liberal voters and black voters energized, but Obama simply could not have been elected without the support of white voters.

If they abandon him in 2012 — and I think many will — racism will not be the culprit.

Barack Obama has a record in office and, whether he wants to or not, he will be judged by that record. He will also be judged by certain standards of presidential ethics, which, admittedly, have taken something of a beating in recent decades.

But, no matter what kind of beating the truth may have endured, the truth is still the truth. A president cannot run away from the promises he made when he sought the office — and what he has done — or failed to do — when he seeks re–election to that office.

I cannot tell a lie.

I cannot tell the truth.

I cannot tell the difference.

(Sometimes I think I should have been a political cartoonist.)

Technical Difficulties

It had been nearly 16 years since the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees had squared off in a televised debate.

But on this night in 1976, when President Ford and former Gov. Jimmy Carter came to Philadelphia, they weren't there to see the Liberty Bell. They were there to debate, and there was much anticipation in the air on that Thursday night.

In a couple of departures from how things had been done in 1960, the debates of 1976 were held in public places and in front of live audiences. The audience that assembled on this night in 1976 for the first of three debates between Ford and Carter expected to see a 90–minute encounter — but they saw more than that.

That first Ford–Carter debate was a lot more than most folks probably expected.

For one thing, it was longer than planned — by 27 minutes. That was how long the sound was out, and that is how long both candidates stood on that stage, virtually motionless, until the problem was resolved.

Because of Carter's huge lead in the polls, Ford had been willing, even eager, to do something that previous incumbents had been unwilling to do — debate his opponent. He believed — as Jules Witcover wrote in "Marathon" — that the American people didn't want someone who had been unknown to them a year and a half earlier to be in charge of foreign policy, and Ford's campaign emphasized questions and doubts about Carter's experience weeks before the two met for their first debate.

Carter later said he wouldn't have won the election if not for the debates. I didn't get that sense at the time, but I wasn't old enough to vote, and perhaps there were nuances that I missed.

But I did get the feeling that the technical difficulties that disrupted that first debate (which really wasn't too memorable, otherwise) gave Carter an opportunity to mentally assess his performance to that point and, like a coach at halftime, make adjustments.

When the debate began, Ford, who trailed by a significant margin in the national polls, came out swinging. Carter, on the other hand, often seemed timid — as if he was intimidated by the aura of the presidency. Perhaps he was.

But, after the unscheduled interruption, Carter appeared more forceful in his criticism of Ford — and he maintained his offensive for the rest of the campaign.

At the time, most surveys indicated the debate had been a draw, although some concluded that Ford had been the winner. But the momentum was with Carter after those technical difficulties 35 years ago.


Saturday, September 17, 2011

Charles Percy and the Old GOP

Death is unavoidable. What is uncertain is when each of us will die.

Sometimes, given the way an individual lived his or her life, the timing of death may be seen as ironic. So it is, I think, with the death of Charles Percy, a former Republican senator from Illinois.

If you are too young to remember Percy, you may be inclined to think, when I say that he was a Republican, that he was a Tea Party type, like Michele Bachmann and some other prominent Republicans from the Midwest. But, in fact, Percy was a liberal Republican (aka a Rockefeller Republican) in the tradition of Nelson Rockefeller and Teddy Roosevelt.

(Percy was a Rockefeller Republican who actually supported Rockefeller. He backed Rocky's unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1968.)

It's important to understand that, within the Republican Party, liberal really meant left of center in Rockefeller's and Roosevelt's days — not extreme left. Rockefeller Republicans opposed communism, promoted American business interests in foreign markets, advocated a strong defense, rejected socialism and redistribution of wealth, just like the other members of their party, but they supported regulatory measures that nearly all 21st–century Republicans simply would never tolerate, and they were advocates of things like federal funding for environmental protection, health care and higher education.

Actually, many Republicans in those days — but especially the Rockefeller Republicans — were progressive on social issues like civil rights, even moreso than their Democratic counterparts, many of whom held office in the South (and would be more comfortable in today's Republican Party than the Democrat).

Without a doubt, that was part of the legacy of the party's first nationally elected president, Abraham Lincoln, and the posture it had taken against slavery.

There was a time in fairly recent American history when the Rockefeller Republicans wielded considerable influence within their party. Their preference didn't always win the presidential nomination, but he was usually competitive if he wasn't successful.

Things really began to shift, I suppose, when Dwight Eisenhower was nominated for president and spoke of "modern Republicanism," which meant a movement toward the center. And, although they nominated essentially political moderates like Richard Nixon (who created the Environmental Protection Agency) and Gerald Ford (who actually chose Rockefeller to be his vice president — much to the dismay, I might add, of the Republicans of that time) in the 1960s and 1970s, Republicans continued to move to the right, nominating Ronald Reagan twice, the two Bushes twice each and Bob Dole once.

In 2008, of course, many Republicans complained that their standard bearer, John McCain, was not a true conservative — but he was much more conservative than many of the Republicans who were on the political scene half a century earlier.

Percy came along at the back end of the Rockefeller Republican era, I suppose. He was something of a wunderkind — president of Bell & Howell before the age of 30, elected to the U.S. Senate at the age of 47.

He was encouraged to enter politics by Eisenhower and narrowly lost his first bid for office when he ran against Illinois' incumbent governor in 1964. A political novice, Percy found that he had to make certain compromises if he hoped to be successful and hesitantly endorsed the Republican standard bearer of that year, Barry Goldwater.

The next election year, 1966, was, by historical standards, clearly a Republican year, and, although Percy faced another incumbent when he ran for the Senate, he won. Perhaps the lessons he had learned in '64 paid off; perhaps he just benefited, as many Republicans did, from a backlash against Democrats. But he was re–elected in 1972 and 1978, losing his bid for a fourth term in 1984 even though a Republican president was re–elected in a landslide.

Today, you simply don't hear someone called a liberal Republican. Even those who would have qualified — albeit barely — as liberal Republicans in Percy's day won't admit to it. They prefer to be called moderate Republicans — but, even under that banner, many find themselves on the defensive against the more extreme factions of their party.

They are a vanishing breed although you do still find some in places where they once thrived — primarily in New England, the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast. As the modern Republican Party swung farther to the right, though, most of the Rockefeller Republicans became Democrats or independents.

Which brings me to the ironic aspect of Percy's death.

The fact that he died today at the age of 91 could hardly be considered surprising, but I do find the timing of his death to be, as I say, ironic. No other word seems appropriate to me.

You see, yesterday was the 35th anniversary of Rockefeller's one–finger salute to hecklers at a campaign stop in Binghamton, N.Y.

(And today, as I observed earlier, is the 15th anniversary of the death of Spiro Agnew, Nixon's first vice president.

(In an unrelated irony, tomorrow will be the 45th anniversary of the still–unsolved murder of one of Percy's daughters.)

In a way, I guess, that gesture foreshadowed the growing antagonism and, ultimately, truly unavoidable split between the conservatives and the Rockefeller Republicans.

Someone had to go. That tent just wasn't big enough for both of them, and, in hindsight, Rockefeller's gesture can be seen as a rather eloquent message to those who had seized the controls.

He Went Quietly, More Or Less

In my lifetime, it often has seemed that the primary role of a vice president has been to make the president look more presidential by comparison.

Maybe there was a time when the vice president had more dignity, but that surely was before Spiro Agnew came along.

Agnew, who died on this day in 1996, first came to the attention of Republican leaders when he was elected governor of Maryland in 1966. In hindsight, his victory in a traditionally Democratic state can be dismissed as something of a fluke — his opponent was a perennial candidate running on a platform that opposed integration who survived an eight–candidate primary.

Consequently, many Democrats who were against segregation crossed party lines to vote for the more moderate–appearing Agnew.

Whatever the reasons for the victory were, Agnew had credentials that Nixon found appealing when he needed a running mate in 1968.

He was a Republican governor of a traditionally Democratic state that was considered by many to be a Southern border state — at a time when Nixon wanted to implement his "Southern strategy" and exploit the racial divide that was gradually ending the Democrats' century of regional dominance.

I've heard many stories about how Agnew came to be on the 1968 ticket — and I have found Theodore H. White's account in "The Making of the President 1968" to be the most plausible.

Nixon, White wrote, met during the convention with a cross section of Republican leaders — some conservative, some centrist, some liberal — to discuss prospects for the second slot on the ticket. Each side had its favorites — and absolutely would not consider the others' favorites — so he settled on Agnew (one of the "political eunuchs," in White's words).

Whatever the reasons or circumstances were, Agnew was chosen to run with Nixon — and, as a result, was elected vice president in November of 1968.

During the campaign — and later, in office — he developed a reputation for a combative, judgmental, even cold style.

"Some newspapers are fit only to line the bottom of bird cages," he said on one occasion.

"An intellectual is a man who doesn't know how to park a bike," he said on another.

On yet another, he observed, "[I]f you've seen one city slum you've seen them all."

He was re–elected with Nixon in 1972.

At that time, Agnew was widely seen as the heir apparent for the nomination in 1976 — but then it was revealed that he was being investigated for a veritable stew of criminal acts. In October 1973, he resigned the vice presidency and entered a plea of no contest to a single charge of income tax evasion.

Agnew insisted that the charges against him had been intended to divert public attention from Watergate — he even suggested, in his memoir, that his life was threatened if he did not "go quietly" — and he never spoke to Nixon again.

But, to my knowledge, he never said the charges were not true.

Anyway, when Nixon died in 1994, Nixon's daughters, in an expression of amity, asked the former vice president to attend the funeral, which he did. After Agnew died 15 years ago today, Nixon's daughters attended his funeral.

What I recall about the day that Agnew died was that almost no one had anything nice to say about him. No one, that is, except for Patrick Buchanan, who worked for a time as one of Nixon's speechwriters and was responsible for some of Agnew's more incendiary public remarks.

I guess it took someone who had a way with words (albeit a mean–spirited one) to find something nice to say about Agnew.

It sure wasn't easy during his lifetime.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Of Myths, Heroism and Flight 93

I realize that this is a weekend of somber reflection, of remembering the thousands of lives that were lost in the terrorist attacks of September 11.

And I realize that it is true, as President Clinton said during his remarks at the dedication of the Flight 93 Memorial in Pennsylvania, that there has always been a special place in the American heart and memory for heroes who sacrificed themselves for others.

But one of the things my mother taught me was that there is true value in genuinely inspiring words and deeds, and I don't think what happened with Flight 93 was exactly what we have been told.

I agree that the story of that flight is very moving. It is tragic, as are the accounts of the other three hijacked flights, but it differs from the other three primarily in one way — the passengers on Flight 93 had the benefit of the knowledge that everyone on the ground had, that other flights had been turned into missiles that had struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Those other three plane crashes happened so rapidly that relatively few passengers on those flights probably knew what was happening. It was that element of simultaneous surprise that the terrorists apparently were counting on — to strike before anyone realized what was happening.

But there was a delay in the departure of Flight 93, and it disrupted their timing. It wasn't terribly long as these things go (I've been through worse even though I have never been a frequent flier), but it was long enough that, after the flight finally was airborne, the pilot and co–pilot nearly got a general warning from the ground about hijackings, and it was long enough for the passengers to learn what had happened in New York and Washington.

That gave them some time to consider their situation — and their response.

Consequently, many people have accepted the myth that has emerged that the passengers revolted as some sort of selfless sense of patriotism and sacrifice swelled within them.

I don't doubt that they were patriotic, but neither am I convinced that their motives were as altruistic as we have been told for the last 10 years, either.

If they put two and two together — as most of them apparently did — they must have realized that their plane was not going to land safely. They must have realized they were part of a suicide mission. They must have known that it was almost certain that they would die — unless some sort of miracle happened and they were able to take control of the plane and one of the passengers could, either alone or with assistance from the ground, manage to land it.

I'm reminded of a scene from the movie "Lenny" about comedian Lenny Bruce. In the movie, Dustin Hoffman re–created segments from Bruce's shows, including one about the famous Zapruder film, the graphic account of the JFK assassination.

After the fatal shot, Jackie Kennedy could be seen climbing from her seat onto the trunk of the car and a Secret Service agent coming forward to help her back into her seat. A sequence of photos from the film was published nationally (in TIME, I think) with a caption that said something about how the first lady gave no thought to her personal safety and tried to shield the president from further gunshots.

Bruce/Hoffman said it was a "dirty lie."

"I think that, when she saw the president get it and the governor get it, she decided to get the hell out of there," he said. I agree. I think it was a split–second decision, reaction without reflection. Human instinct.

If she had had more time to think about it, she might have said yes, she would try to protect her husband if she saw he had been hurt.

But others assigned more meaning to it than that.

That's the feeling I get when I hear people speak of the passengers' revolt on Flight 93. They speak of them as if they sat in the back of that hijacked plane and had an in–depth discussion of American history and the principles of freedom and democracy — and then voted to stand up to terrorism.

I'm not saying that the passengers of Flight 93 reacted without any reflection. And the fact that they forced that plane to go down in a Pennsylvania field instead of Washington probably did save hundreds, if not thousands, of lives.

But I don't think that possibility crossed their minds. I think they were thinking only of their own survival. And that isn't a bad thing. It's a normal human instinct — self–preservation.

I've read the transcripts and heard the recordings that have been released to the public. I recall one of the passengers telling the others, "In the cockpit ... if we don't, we'll die!"

I have heard nothing about passengers shouting "Give me liberty or give me death!" or any other patriotic slogans from American history.

Their fates were sealed when that plane left the ground, but they mentally resisted that knowledge. They weren't thinking beyond the moment and doing whatever they could to live to the next moment ... and the next and the next.

There was, I should add, a certain poignance in Vice President Joe Biden's words about rising to the occasion and overcoming adversity. As a young senator–elect, Biden's life was forever altered by the loss of his first wife and their small daughter in a car accident, and for a time he considered leaving politics, but he did not.

Nor did he withdraw from life. He raised his sons the best he could and re–married a few years later. And his nearly four decades of public service stand as testimony to his survival.

Perhaps that will be the future inspiration of September 11 — the way the friends and relatives of the victims rose from the ashes and survived and persevered.

Things were over fairly quickly for the passengers of the planes. Sometimes just surviving is the hardest part.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Legacy of 9-11

I know this has been said before — in many, many ways — but it really is hard to comprehend that it has been 10 years since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

I learned long ago that it isn't necessary to mention the year. All you need to say is "September 11" — or, in the shorthand form of which modern Americans are so fond, "9–11" — and the listener knows precisely what you're talking about.

My memories of that day are bound to be considerably different than the ones most people have, though. At the time, I was working in an office that had no television, and we had to get whatever information we could from the radios at our desks, phone calls from friends and relatives who did have access to television coverage and the internet.

The thing I remember most about that morning is how pleasant the weather was. It was unusually mild for Dallas, Texas, that early in September — the kind of weather, really, that one expects around mid–October at the earliest. Temperatures dropped to the mid–60s the night before, and I remember thinking briefly about wearing a jacket to work that morning.

(It's been a little spooky around here lately. We've endured one of the hottest summers ever, but, a few days ago, a cool front came through and our lows have been in the 60s while our highs have been in the 80s — just in time for the 10th anniversary.)

I remember thinking to myself that it really felt like football season — and that pleased me. You see, when I talk about football weather, I mean the kind of weather I remember from my childhood and college days in Arkansas — cool, crisp, a few clouds in the sky, maybe a slight breeze.

In fact, football season had begun, and that truly is a sacred time in Texas. Not every Texan believes in God, but most do believe in football. I do, anyway, and the knowledge that football season had begun put a spring in my step as I left my apartment that morning.

I was driving to work when I heard reports on the radio of the first airplane crash into the World Trade Center. The radio guys in Dallas were treating it like it was an accident, an isolated event, and I assumed it was. Apparently, they had a television in the radio studio, and they described the sight of one of the tall towers billowing smoke into a clear blue sky.

I have tried — many times — to remember if there were any clouds in the sky over north Texas that morning, and I just can't remember. There may have been some, and I just didn't notice.

I do remember that the sun was shining so, if there were any clouds, there couldn't have been many.

Airports shouldn't be so close to tall buildings, one of the guys on the radio said, as if he knew anything about New York geography. Most listeners probably assumed that he did — but, in fact, JFK Airport is about 12 miles southeast of Lower Manhattan, where the World Trade Center stood.

That alone should have been a tipoff that something was seriously amiss.

But I was driving in rush hour traffic and gave little more thought to the morning radio banter than I usually did, and I recall thinking that having airports a good distance from commercial districts was just common sense.

Terrorism wasn't on my mind yet — and, for whatever reason, it didn't occur to me that a plane crashing into the World Trade Center would be the lead story on the evening news. I made a mental note to mention it to my co–workers — and hoped it wouldn't slip my mind.

Well, it didn't slip my mind. Turned out, it was the only story on the news for several evenings.

I parked my car a few minutes before 8 a.m. Dallas time and entered my building.

In my office, we worked in two–person teams, and I remember walking to my workstation and starting to tell my partner, "I just heard the wildest thing on the radio ..." but she put one finger to her lips to silence me and turned up the volume on the radio on her desk. They were talking about a second plane that had crashed into the WTC.

My office processed auto loans for dealerships around the country, and our work flow depended on the morning and afternoon shipments of paperwork from UPS and FedEx. When air travel was grounded that day, work came to a screeching halt — and remained slow for weeks.

For the rest of that day, we heard about all the things that most people were seeing — the destruction at the Pentagon, the people who jumped to their deaths from the towering infernos that the twin towers had become, the apparently heroic acts of the passengers on Flight 93 that may have prevented the White House or the Capitol from being destroyed.

It was shocking enough to hear about. I remember my departmental manager, Carrie, walking around in a kind of daze. She kept talking about the people who were trapped on those doomed airplanes.

By mid–afternoon, the overall managers of my office decided to close up early (there wasn't any work to do, anyway), and, when I got home, I finally got to see what everyone else had witnessed live.

I haven't had to live with the trauma that seeing all of that as it happened surely must have caused for many. I have seen footage from that day, of course — I saw a lot of it that very day — so I know what millions saw. The difference was that I knew what was coming.

It was like seeing a shocking movie ending that someone told you about before you saw the movie.

Imagine if, 50 years ago, you were standing in line to see "Psycho," and someone walked by and casually said to his/her companion, "I saw it the other day. What a finish! Anthony Perkins is his own mother, and he kills Janet Leigh while she's taking a shower!"

If you stayed to see the movie, the ending would be tarnished for you — to say the least.

Unfortunately, what happened 10 years ago was no movie, and even though I knew what was going to happen, I felt compelled to watch it — maybe out of respect for all the innocent lives that were lost, perhaps out of a sense of duty as an aggrieved American.

Maybe I felt like one does when a car accident or train wreck is unfolding before one's eyes.

Thousands of people died that day, and, as a result, thousands more have died on Middle Eastern soil, and billions of American dollars have been spent there.

I know people who are convinced that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan contributed heavily to America's current economic problems, and perhaps they are right. I'm certainly no economist, but even those people who studied it in college and practice economics professionally don't know everything there is to know. If they did, it seems to me, there would be more of a consensus on what economic policy should be.

There can be little doubt that America's wars in the last decade have taken much of this country's resources, human and financial. But they weren't the sole contributors.

It would be foolish to blame what happened 10 years ago for the troubles facing America in 2011.

And yet ...

I remember, at the time, how so many of the people around me spoke in awe of the brilliant intellects that conceived such a plot. Much of their logic was rooted in the Middle Ages, most people agreed, but they were smart enough to anticipate any roadblocks they might encounter because of modern policies.

They did their research. They were familiar with routine procedures. They made sure the box cutters that were used as knives met existing standards. No detail was too small.

As the plan was taking shape, of course, the roadblocks they wished to avoid were the ones that could stand in their way to achieving a short–term — albeit dramatic — goal.

And they achieved it, perhaps in more spectacular fashion than any dared hope in those days in the late 1990s. From what I have heard, few, if any, thought the Twin Towers actually could be brought down.

But what if one — or more — not only thought the Twin Towers could be reduced to rubble but had the prescience to anticipate a more long–term consequence: how the financial weight of waging two wars simultaneously, combined with the unchecked greed of the seamy underside of capitalism, could bring America to its knees?

It almost seems like one of those bizarre conspiracy theories in which everything must happen just so. What are the odds?

And yet ...

Many of the upper–level operatives for Al Qaeda are either deceased or in custody now.

But if any who are still alive and at large had the foresight to anticipate how hijacking and crashing four airplanes would reverberate in American life and continue to have a corrosive influence on both American economics and American politics a decade later, I can only guess that this must be a satisfying moment.

If so, they must be the only ones who feel satisfied on this occasion.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Talk Is Cheap

Today is Labor Day, and it is now little more than three days before Barack Obama is slated to give his landmark address on job creation.

He was, as you probably know, going to give his speech on Wednesday — but, as usual, someone in this White House failed to do the most basic of legwork, which would have quickly revealed that a debate between the Republican presidential candidates had been scheduled for that day.

In fact, it has been scheduled for several months, and it is taking place at the library that bears the name of the Republicans' 20th century idol, Ronald Reagan.

It took no special powers of prognostication to anticipate the donnybrook that would follow Obama's hasty and ill–advised announcement of the original scheduling of this speech — or to predict that Obama would be forced to back down.

Yep, a little legwork could have prevented this president from a totally unnecessary and embarrassing scheduling confrontation with congressional Republicans that he was sure to lose.

But it was really no surprise that this administration — in its leap–before–you–look fashion — didn't bother with the details. They would only get in the way of imposing The One's will.

Anyway, when he did lose that one — in what may have been the most predictable result in a lifetime of observing American politics — Obama moved his speech back a single day — putting it in direct competition with the first pro football game of the 2011 season.

It is typical of the ham–handed way this administration operates.

Apparently, now that Obama's presidency is clearly in jeopardy (I have felt that way for a long time, but now, even Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, who was one of the first to climb aboard the Barack Obama Express, before it pulled out of the station, concedes that Obama is "a guy in a really bad spot"), job creation has taken on a new urgency ...

(The fierce urgency of now.)

In fact, I can only presume that, from Barack Obama's vantage point, the unemployment crisis must have emerged from out of the blue, like the attack on Pearl Harbor — because it is usually only that kind of emergency that prompts a president to address a joint session of Congress.

Presidents, of course, speak to joint sessions of Congress when they give their annual State of the Union speeches, but, otherwise, an address to a joint session of Congress typically is given when the nation faces an unexpected emergency — like a Pearl Harbor.

A speech to a joint session of Congress — whether it is by a president or a foreign dignitary or someone else — is not the sort of thing Congress likes to allow very often. It turns the lawmakers' domain into a stage for someone else.

I don't think anyone disagrees that the joblessness crisis is a serious emergency — even the moral equivalent of war — but it has been far from an unexpected emergency, just an ignored one.

Consequently, I do not think there is anything about the current situation that truly warrants a speech before a joint session of Congress. A speech from the Oval Office would be more appropriate, I think — but, for some reason, Obama doesn't like to give speeches there.

The unemployment situation was an emergency 2½ years ago, when monthly job losses were in six digits — but Obama obsessed instead about health care and his first Supreme Court nomination. That was how he chose to spend his political capital — along with spending the first Labor Day of his presidency preparing to address the schoolchildren of America.

Unemployment was 9.5% in September of 2009 — it's 9.1% now.

Why wasn't it a crisis worthy of a speech to a joint session of Congress then instead of now?

Probably because he hadn't been president for a full year in September 2009, and he still enjoyed (to an extent) the traditional honeymoon relationship a new president enjoys. But in September 2011, he is about 14 months from facing an increasingly frustrated electorate — a majority of whom, as Dowd correctly observes, "still like and trust the president," but that isn't what a re–election campaign is about.

Obama was able to win the first time because he has a knack for fancy speechmaking. He promised "hope" and "change," and that sounded good to a lot of people.

But that won't do it this time. No matter how much the voters may like Obama, he will be judged by the results of his presidency. How much change has there been? In Reagan's words, are you better off than you were four years ago?

And job approval surveys suggest that most voters do not believe Obama has delivered because he has been steadily losing ground.

Talk is cheap for incumbents. For an incumbent's words to have any meaning, any value, they must be in harmony with reality, however harsh that reality may be.

It is not necessary for a president to have perfect political pitch, but if he and the voters are in sync, so much the better. To accomplish that, he must enlist the voters as his allies. He must take them into his confidence and explain to them why he believes certain things are necessary.

I have often felt that this president must be tone deaf — because, in virtually every situation he has faced since taking office, he has taken the position that is all but certain to arouse the wrath of the most people or his response has been slow and plodding.

To say this president has been disengaged with joblessness is to severely understate the situation. He has been disengaged on practically all things. The "Obamacare" legislation that stands as the president's signature achievement wasn't even authored by the White House. That responsibility was turned over to congressional Democrats.

But this president isn't just tone deaf. He's dumb and blind, too, the "Tommy" of American presidents.

I don't really have a choice about whether to listen to him on Thursday. I have a news writing/gathering class to teach on Thursday evening, and if my students ask me about the presidential address, I will tell them it is important for working journalists to listen to a presidential address.

But if it is still in progress when I get home — and it probably will not be — I will choose to watch the football game.

As I wrote the other day, I've stopped listening to him — unless it leaks out that he is going to announce something truly bold.

Otherwise, I'll pass. I have no desire to hear another State of the Unionesque laundry list of general (and mostly unrelated) proposals or a rerun of his 2008 stump speech.

Talk is cheap, Mister President. Let's see some action. Real action.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Charlie Brown Syndrome

I've been watching the weather forecasts unusually closely lately because those of us here in north Texas appear to be on the cusp of an important — and, for most of us, welcome — shift.

I'm speaking of nature's seemingly endless grip of triple–digit temperature readings we've had in this area this summer.

Now, it's been a scorcher across most of the country this summer, as it usually is — and it is always hot in Texas — but the summer of 2011 has been one of those truly extreme summers — like the ones in 1980 and 1998 — that people talk about for years.

Almost without exception, our temperatures this summer have been over 100° every day for more than two months. In Texas, we expect to see some 100° temperatures each summer. But not dozens of them.

There have been a few days when the temperature didn't make it to 100° — and only once, I believe, when it was significantly below 100° — but, most of the time, it has been like a cruel game of bait and switch.

The "bait," in this case, has been the occasional prediction of a daytime high that fell short of 100° or a night–time low that dropped below 80°. The forecasters start speaking of this glimmer of hope about a week ahead of time, when it first appears on the computer models, but the closer we get to the day when it is supposed to happen, the farther back the forecasters push the line until there is nothing left.

That's the "switch," and I have started thinking of it as the Charlie Brown Syndrome.

If you're old enough to remember the "Peanuts" comic strip, it's like those periodic strips when Lucy would con Charlie Brown into trying to kick the football. She insisted that she would hold the ball for him, but, when he agreed to kick it and came running to kick it, she pulled it away at the last second, and he fell flat on his back.

And, as Charlie Brown lay there, flat on his back, Lucy would come up to him with some sort of punchline. Usually, whatever she said managed to both justify her decision to pull the ball away from him just before he could kick it and contradict the argument she had made to convince him — against his better judgment — to try to kick it in the first place.

You always knew what was coming when you saw Lucy with a football. It was a running gag — and a generally harmless one, too (except as far as Charlie Brown was concerned).

Maybe that is what has been so insidious about these sub–100° forecasts. It's been like Lucy's trickery with the football, but it hasn't been harmless.

People have died in the heat wave of 2011, as they do in every heat wave. Utility bills have gone through the roof, adding stress to already overextended household budgets.

There's been some relief in other parts of the country, but Texas has been waiting — not always patiently but waiting nevertheless. And our deliverance may be at hand. Finally.

For about a week, people around here have been told that a cool front is on its way and will bring temperatures down this week.

Yesterday, as usual, temperatures exceeded 100°, but it was 75° when I got up this morning, and it is supposed to be right around 90° for today's high. That's better than it has been, but not where I would like it to be.

Tonight, the forecasters tell us, we will see, temperatures dipping into the low 60s, possibly the upper 50s. We haven't heard those words in four or five months, and we have good reason to be skeptical. But the forecast suggests that this is what we can expect all week — along with temperatures in the 80s — and they haven't been pushing the line back as we have gotten closer to this, our transition day.

The forecasters are predicting a high temperature tomorrow that is lower than the temperature as I write this at 8 a.m. on Sunday. It is currently 86°, and the forecasters say it won't get above 83° tomorrow.

We'll see.